ND   JMC : History of Medieval Philosophy / by Maurice De Wulf

64. Moral System of the Stoics. -- Virtue and Happiness . -- Man is superior to all other things in this, that he has a knowledge of the cosmic laws to which fate compels him to submit himself. Conformity of our life with these cosmic laws, regulation of our conduct by our strictly intellectual nature, obedience to reason as the sole motive of action (homologoumenôs te phusei zên), such are the leading principles of Stoic morality and virtue. Furthermore, if we subordinate all our acts to the dictates of reason, we reach that happiness towards which our natural aspirations spontaneously lead us. It follows that virtue is the highest and only good.

Virtue considered on its positive side is a self-determination of the will to act in conformity with our knowledge of the true, abstracting altogether from every other motive. Virtue begins in knowledge and is consummated in action. It is not to be confounded with science (Socrates), which it surpasses; for speculation has no other raison d'être than to serve as a guide of conduct. The wise man retires within himself and professes an absolute indifference to every motive that does not come from reason. This apathetic sort of tranquillity which keeps the troubles of the external world shut out from the soul is the negative element of Stoic virtue. Just as virtue is the only good, so vice, or the act of volition contrary to reason, is the only evil. Between these two qualities there is an essential incompatibility which Stoicism exaggerates out of all due proportion. Good and bad have an absolute value, they either exist or they do not: they admit of no degrees. Since they are what they are of themselves, it follows that under no respect can one become the other. To this sharp distinction the Stoics add an equally absolute and radical difference between good and bad people; the change from bad to good is instantaneous.

Everything that is neither good in itself nor bad in itself has no connection with morals; it is indifferent (adiaphoron) to virtue and hence unworthy of the wise man. These austere moralists of the portico blamed Aristotle for making external goods an element in happiness but they reserved their most vehement attacks for the Epicureans (68). They regarded pleasure as morally indifferent; it can be a consequence, but not a motive of our actions.

Virtue and Duty. -- Virtue is obligatory because it has a cosmic significance: it is the form of man's natural activity. But it is a necessity of fate that beings should be subject to the laws of the cosmos in their activity. The general tone of Stoic morality is, therefore, to diminish the value of human personality.

Virtue and the Passions. -- As man is not pure intelligence, he bears within his breast not only a rational tendency but also irrational motions or passions (pathê). Passion is a disorderly movement of reason towards irrational things. It starts with a false representation of something, and ends in a consequent consent of the will. As such it depends on our will, and therefore on our liberty (63). All the passions are bad; they are psychical diseases (in opposition to Aristotle). The sage is master of himself, resists his passions and tries to extirpate them from his soul; he becomes apathetic, that is to say, passionless (apatheia).{1}

The Stoic philosophy presents a close communion between the practical and the theoretical elements of life. It sought the triumph of virtue in a profound knowledge of cosmic order. It borrowed its chief moral theories from the Cynics, and from Heraclitus several of its physical theories; but while the Cynical school despised speculative research, and Ionian dynamism lost sight of the moral value of life, Stoicism completed the one by the other, whilst renewing both.

{1} In practice, the most ardent pupils of stoicism had to relax the excessive and impossible austerity of their moral system. After defining virtue, they describe in detail the particular virtues, notably justice, love of our neighbour, and friendship.

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